The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Only the curious will learn and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning.  The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient."... ...Eugene S. Wilson.

Commentary of the Day - January 4, 2003:  Significant Improvement.  Guest commentary by Peter Berger.

A few years back Vermont's Department of Education engineered a seismic leap in students' grammar skills.  The department's method was simple. In 1993 students whose writing showed "patterns of errors" received 2.0 points on a four-point scale.  The following year the state revised its scoring rubric.  Students whose writing showed the same "patterns of errors" now received 3.0 points on a four-point scale.  When statewide scores -- not surprisingly -- went up, the department proudly reported a "significant improvement" in grammar skills.

No kidding.

Unfortunately, nothing really improves when you artificially redefine success.

At school academic standards have always defined success.  Some students exceeded the standards, many met them, and others fell short.  If you consistently fell short of the minimum standards, you didn't get a diploma. You didn't get credit for learning enough because, in fact, you hadn't learned enough.

Dropping out of school was never a cause for celebration. But we understood that the inescapable consequence of having meaningful standards was that some students wouldn't meet them.

This all changed when we began expecting schools to guarantee success.  Soon our impossible expectations became statutes.  Our slogans promised "success for all students," and our laws decreed that schools and teachers could leave no child behind.

It's a mystery why we'd expect every human being to succeed at school.  We don't expect everybody to succeed at anything else.

Some preach that every student failure is really the school's failure.   That's nonsense.  Yes, some teachers are mediocre, and some of us are even incompetent.  But when you're talking about dropouts, it's unreasonable to blame a student's consistent failure over the course of twelve years on the alleged coincidence of twelve years of bad teachers.

Most students fail at school either because they lack sufficient ability to succeed academically, or because they choose not to make a sufficient effort.  And like it or not, genes, character, and home life are beyond a school's control.

This doesn't mean that schools can't help some kids overcome their obstacles and handicaps.  Poor reading skills, for example, hamper students in every subject and class.  Effective elementary reading instruction based on phonics and early intervention when beginning readers fall behind are both sensible remedies addressed in No Child Left Behind.  Smaller reading classes in many schools would help, too.

Accurate dropout rates are tough to pin down.  Everybody's got a number and a reason why the other's guy's number is wrong.  Factors ranging from student transfers to GED's complicate the calculations.  The National Center for Education Statistics puts the graduation rate near 86%. The numbers are lower in city schools and among minorities.

Regardless of the number you pick, when we think of dropouts, we don't usually picture second graders.  We picture adolescents.  How do these students get so far along and still know so little?

The answer in part can be traced to the retention policy that's ruled the roost in elementary schools for the past few decades.  In 1983 A Nation at Risk condemned the practice of passing kids along to the next grade when they hadn't mastered the material at their current level.

This makes good sense, especially if you're simultaneously talking about maintaining high standards.  It also makes sense if you don't want to cast struggling students even further in over their heads.  The trouble is the experts in charge of elementary schools disagree.  The National Association of Elementary School Principals continues to reject retention.  They worry about damaging "the child's self-concept."  According to their research, "kids who are retained are much more likely to drop out of school."

Of course, that might be because the kids who get retained are the ones who either don't care or who have a hard time learning in the first place.  As for the child's "level of confidence," I don't like to see kids unhappy, but given the choice of damaging a student's self-concept by retaining him or damaging it by turning him into an eighteen-year-old functional illiterate, I don't see much of a choice.

Many districts have established special programs for students on the verge of dropping out.  Consistent with the social services mission public schools have adopted, these "alternatives" tend to deal with school failure as a social and emotional problem, instead of as the academic issue it actually is.

Some substitute "workplace experience" for classroom learning.  At one school beginning in eighth grade, students "help out" as construction site "gofers" and put in time at the local recycling center. It's unclear how these "hands-on careers" and cutting the academic day in half make much sense for kids who already haven't learned enough to satisfy graduation standards.

When these kids do attend classes, they generally receive one-on-one and small group instruction. In one program seven faculty members teach forty students. How do you justify lavishing such a disproportionate share of school resources on kids who've often made the least effort themselves?  If only my regular students had it so good.

One principal describes his alternative program as an "option for kids who don't like the strict rules" and "large classes of high school."  Show me a kid who does.  Then there's the "adventure education director" another district plans to hire.  Adventure education sends kids on outdoor activities, everything from "trust building" games and climbing on ropes to camping and white water rafting.  The superintendent maintains that this program will "serve a need that we hadn't accepted as a real need in the past."

Rafting?  A real need?

Politicians and experts are desperate to keep kids in school.  But diplomas aren't supposed to be about adventure or having a part time job.  Keeping kids in school doesn't do any good if the only way you can do it is to stop teaching them anything meaningful.  We need to accept the hard truth that having standards means some kids won't meet them.

Retaining a student because he doesn't know enough isn't what makes him a dropout.  Not knowing enough is what makes him a dropout.  Moving him along regardless of how little he knows doesn't help. It just makes him a dropout with a diploma.

©2003 Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches language arts at Weathersfield Middle School in Vermont.  He publishes his columns locally under the name "Poor Elijah".  He would be pleased to answer inquiries directed to the editor.

The IP comments:  The IP agrees with much, but not all, of Poor Elijah's comments.  He differs on the issue of alternative paths for students who are not academically talented or inclined.  In the IP's opinion not all, but certainly some of these students, could benefit from a vocational education path that equips them to earn a living.  The issue of standards is important.  Perhaps the appropriate way to address them is to have both an academic diploma and a vocational diploma, with different standards for each.

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